A Harvard Medical School doctor answers a question about hand cramps

hand cramps

Q: I have strong hand cramps that curl my fingers into a claw shape. I can only straighten them by using my other hand. What can I do to keep this from happening?

A: What you describe sounds like carpal spasm. Spasms, or cramps, are involuntary muscle contractions. The most common causes of spasms are overused muscles (in the hands that might be due to writing or typing) and dehydration. Other causes of muscle cramping include low levels of calcium and magnesium.

Another possibility is that you have carpal tunnel syndrome, which occurs when the nerves in the wrist are compressed. Typical symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include pain in the wrist and tingling and numbness in the fingers, but hand spasms may also occur. Spasms in other areas of your body, such as the upper arm, neck or face, suggest an underlying neurological problem.

What is CTS?

CTS, or carpal tunnel syndrome, may be the cause behind your frequent hand cramps and finger cramps.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a combination of numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness in the hand caused by compression of the median nerve in the carpal tunnel.

Symptoms include numbness, pain, and stiffness in the hand, fingers, and thumb.

A third possibility is writer's cramp, also called musician's cramp. It is a spasmodic contraction of the muscles of the hand and forearm. The fingers may suddenly freeze up, dramatically affecting the ability to write or play an instrument. Some golfers experience contractions of the hand while putting, a phenomenon that's been nicknamed "the yips."

Talk to your doctor if the cramps occur often. If he or she can't find a specific cause, focus on drinking enough water and stretching your fingers periodically.

— Dr. William Kormos, editor-in-chief of Harvard Men's Health Watch and a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital

For more on the causes and treatment of hand pain, buy Hands: Strategies for strong, pain-free hands, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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